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Sixth Circuit Rules on Probable Cause to Search Home Computers

Today in Peffer v. Stephens, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 1049 (6th Cir.), the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a decision of a district court holding that a warrant to search the home of a person suspected of committing a crime using his computer was supported by probable cause. The lower court granted a Michigan police sergeant summary judgment in a 42 U.S.C. 1983 claim based on the failure of the warrant to show probable cause for the search because it did not show a connection between the crime and the home.

Peffer had been suspected of the crime of officer impersonation and witness intimidation by sending letters to a local school and child services department The warrant to search his home permitted the search and seizure of, ""records or documents which were created,modified . . . or interpreted by a computer" and more specifically identified to include certain computer hardware, computer-related equipment, peripheral and storage devices, software and other items used for computer operation, communication, encryption, and access, as well as electronic mail ("e-mail") and other electronically stored communications." [id. at 7]. Criminal charges were not filed against Peffer after the seizure of a laptop, two computer towers and other items.

There was evidence that the letters were computer generated. Judge Bush noted it was a question of first impression in the Sixth Circuit whether or not the nature of a computer meant that its use in a crime led to an inference that evidence of a crime was likely to found in a suspect's residence. An assumption can be made that a computer is in the home of its owner if an affidavit does not indicate otherwise. "If an affidavit presents probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed by means of an object,however, a magistrate may presume that there is a nexus between that object and the suspect's current residence, unless the affidavit contains facts that may rebut that presumption." [Id. at 30].

The affidavit's failure to provide evidence that the suspect owned a computer was immaterial because, "the averment that he used one in the commission of a crime is sufficient to create the presumption that it would be found at his residence." [Id. at 36].

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